Unforeseen costs of developing hydel

“Development” comes at a cost, which is why calls are so often made to “contribute” and “sacrifice” for the nation-building process. Not all costs are, however, tangible. There is a lot that is lost which cannot be easily quantified or compensated. And then there are costs which are not even projected. The final episode of the Spotlight series looks at some hydel costs which caught some by surprise…

One of the houses damaged by an explosion that occurred on the night of 24 March this year, at around 8 p.m., which rattled the villages of Laven and Lingzya in Upper Dzongu, North Sikkim. Tremors caused by the explosion damaged several houses, smashing window panes and creating cracks on the walls. It was later learnt that "expired explosives" at a Magazine house of the Himagiri Power Project at Lingzya had exploded.


Tshering Eden


A Lepcha couple carrying dokos [bamboo baskets] on their backs leave home to gather fodder for their cattle. It is just like any other day. Today, however, they are stopped by guards from entering the land that had once been theirs, and their forefathers’ before them. The land that had been passed down from generations was acquired by hydel power project developers for the 300 MW Panan hydel project in Dzongu, North Sikkim. The couple could not understand why they were being stopped from even collecting fodder on this land on which nothing had yet been constructed. It had not dawned upon them that when they sold the land to the developers, they had given up their rights to whatever grew on that land as well; even something growing wild like fodder.

This, amongst many others, is a telling example of the difficulties involved in comprehending the costs at which hydel projects are built.

Before construction of a hydel power project begins, the power developers, stakeholders, government and other agencies involved draw up all possible impacts the project can have on the environment and the lives of the people of the area. More often than not, benefits trump the possible harm to environment. So, all negative impacts are accounted for and measures put in place to counteract them. Even so, the effects can never be foreseen in their entirety.

Take the case of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Reports which are meant to assess the likely impact on environment due to a power project, and based on which Environment Management Plans are drawn up to mitigate such impacts. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in its 2016 Performance Audit on ‘Environmental Clearance and Post Clearance Monitoring’, stated that EIA Reports in River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects are of the ‘poorest quality’. Poorly done EIAs mean surprises and in this particular context, there are no pleasant surprises.


Falling on the border of North and East districts of Sikkim is the town of Dikchu, one kilometer away from where a river by the same name meets Teesta. Dikchu means ‘noisy river’ in the vernacular. It is also where the reservoir of the 510 MW Teesta Stage V hydel project is located. The reservoir also backs into the Dikchu river and consequently, the river is no longer noisy. This, at least initially, meant sleepless nights for some residents of the town. People were used to the gush of the river lulling them to sleep. The river’s sounds - an unforeseen cost.

Meanwhile, people in Sikkim are all too familiar with the decreasing volume of the Teesta. Every trip along National Highway 10 towards the plains of West Bengal will elicit a comment on the drying Teesta. The 510 MW Stage V dam holds back most of the Teesta’s water which is why the river downstream of the dam has hardly any water running through it.


A BRIDGE, A SCHOOL AND A TOWN

Hydel projects entail the movement of a large number of labour and construction supplies and a tragedy concerning the latter brought to light something very few had considered to be related to these projects.

On 19 Dec 2011, ten people were killed in a bridge collapse at Rangchang Khola, about 18 kms from Singtam towards Dikchu on the Singtam-Mangan highway. The incident took place when a 48-wheel heavy trailer, engaged by the Teesta Urja company, was attempting to cross the bridge. Just as the vehicle arrived in the middle of the bridge, the entire span collapsed, taking with it the vehicle and all inside it along with four pedestrians who happened to be crossing the bridge at the time.


The Rangchang bridge collapse of 19 Dec 2011. The bridge could not handle the load of a 48-wheeler truck carrying 60 tonnes of load. The maximum carrying capacity allowed on Sikkim’s roads at the time was 10 tonnes. Ten lives were lost in the mishap.

The trailer was taking supplies to Chungthang where Teesta Urja was constructing the Teesta Stage III hydel project.

Although, the bridge had been constructed just two years ago and was thought to be sturdy, many others in the State have not been constructed for transporting such heavy loads. 48-wheeler trucks do not regularly ply on Sikkim’s roads.

Soon after the incident, the State Transport Department resolved to take “strict and stringent action” against any transporter ferrying more than 10 tonnes of load which is the prescribed load limit allowed on all Sikkim roads. The ill fated trailer was carrying around 60 tonnes.


Meanwhile, on the border of South and West Sikkim is the 96 MW Jorethang Loop HEP which considers itself a smaller and harmless project.

“Jorethang Loop HEP is a run-of-river scheme with minimal storage of 0.63 MCM and no people rendered homeless or landless. The submergence area that will be created due to the construction of the diversion structure is only 14.48 ha (at FRL [full reservoir level]), none of which comes under private land or renders anyone homeless or landless.”

That is what the website of the project developers, Dans Energy, says about the Jorethang Loop HEP under a section labeled ‘Environment’. However, in August 2017, the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya at Rohtak in Jorethang had to be shut down for about 10 days because continued toe-erosion by the reservoir had washed away a portion of the boundary wall and endangered one of the hostels in the school. Ever since the project was commissioned in Oct 2015, toe erosion caused by the rise and ebb of the reservoir had been cleaving away at the boundary of the school.

“Dans Energy put no thought into the effects the reservoir would have on the school and did not implement any measures to protect the school,” says Vice-Principal of JNV Rohtak, Parshuramaiah.

When the project began in 2015, he was the Principal In-Charge of the school and when water started collecting in the reservoir, he began speaking out against the dangers this could pose to the school. He shot off numerous letters to the project developers and the administration, but it was only after the school actually sustained damages and the High Court of Sikkim issued directions that the power developers started repair works. However, this too, Mr Parshuramaiah terms as ‘eyewash’ because Dans Energy is only repairing the damaged portion of the boundary wall and not investing in protective works.

“They are only working on a small area. 90% of the damages are not being addressed by the power developers,” he says.

Last year, Dans Energy was also directed by the District Collector to construct a borewell for the school as an alternative to the pipeline, also damaged by the reservoir, which supplies water to the school. Work on this is yet to begin.

“With the rainy season about to begin, we fear that water supply is again going to be badly affected,” the vice principal adds.

For now, around 100 boys are living in two temporary sheds constructed by the power developers after one of the hostels was rendered unsafe by toe-erosion by the reservoir last year.


Even to a layperson, it seems obvious that man-made dams holding back huge volumes of water are likely to have all kinds of impact on the river and land. However, predicting how nature will behave is not something we humans are very good at, so those behind such projects fail to foresee many such impacts and can only offer stopgap solutions later.

Take for instance the case of Dikchu, a small town which now lives lapped by the massive Teesta Stage V reservoir. In 2011, people of the area complained that around 20 feet of private land holdings had been washed away by landslides that occurred at the base of the Dikchu New Market which sits right above the reservoir. They blamed the lack of rim treatment for the damages.

Similarly, landslides at Jang village, located on the left bank of the Teesta near Dikchu, also caused major damages to houses and other property with 24 of the 45 houses in the village being declared unsafe for habitation. All of them had suffered wide cracks induced by landslides which have been tearing away from the slope below into the Stage-V reservoir. A study conducted by Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority of landslides in Sikkim [Inventory and GIS Mapping of Landslides in Sikkim] reported that this slide “has been compounded by the lack of rim treatment at Teesta V reservoir”.

The Mangan-Dikchu highway below Dikchu New Market is also now at risk of collapsing due to the instability tugging at it from the reservoir below. The affected blame improper Reservoir Rim Treatment measures adopted along the reservoir by NHPC for the landslides.


LIVELIHOODS STOLEN

“The Teesta feeds thousands of people so she is like a mother to us,” says Anit Chettri, owner of Everest River Rafting located at 7th Mile, Kirney [West Bengal] along the National Highway 10. He is referring to how river rafting and quarries [sand and stone] help people settled along the highway eke out a living. According to Anit, the rafting business employs around a 1000 people. The Teesta-V dam, however, has taken the thrill out of river rafting, or more literally, taken the white out of the white water.

“Just imagine having to push a grounded raft free from the middle of the Teesta! That’s how it is. Our rafts get stuck and damaged because the river is too shallow,” he says of how the dam has affected the river’s flow. He says he’s scared that rafting will be completely dead one day.

“We have to lie to tourists when they point out the low water levels in the river. We tell them another tributary will join the Teesta lower down and the water levels will increase. We have to do that. This is how we earn our livelihood,” shares Anit.

During peak season which is from April to June when the rains have set in, one can expect 3 plus - 4 plus grade of rapids in the Teesta. At other times there are hardly any rapids at all, he says. It wasn’t like this before but since the dam in Sikkim came up, the Teesta is no longer how she used to be.

“The thrill of rafting is gone. You won’t even get some water on yourself during the ride. So I tell my guides to make sure that the tourists get wet a bit even if they have to swim or take a dip in the river or just splash some water on themselves,” says Anit.


At 29th Mile, NH10, Bina Tamang, previously a quarry worker, now runs a tea stall.

She is among the hundreds of workers who have been forced to find an alternative source of livelihood after the quarries had to be shut down when the Teesta Low Dam IV was constructed 18.3 km downstream of Teesta Bridge near Teesta Bazaar and flooded their work-site.

Bina, along with many of her family members, worked at the quarry for 30-40 years. When the reservoir was filling up, quarry workers continued working, moving up the river until the banks got completely submerged.

When asked if they were told that the quarries would be flooded out of business after the dam came up, Bina says, “NHPC didn’t tell us anything.”

Two years after the quarry shut down, the workers were paid a measly Rs 48,000 each as compensation.

“The party [TMC] pursued the matter and got us Rs 48,000 in compensation eventually. That amount was nothing, we just spent it. Earlier, NHPC had said we would get Rs 4-5 lakh per person. Later, GJM had promised to get us Rs 2 lakh,” says Bina.

She adds that for this too, the affected had to run from pillar to post paying for the travel from their own pockets.

Quarry workers used to take home between Rs 500-600 per week, so it looks like NHPC worked its compensation as per their wages lost for two years between when the quarries were shut till the compensation was paid out. Now, many of the quarry workers have moved to different places or collect and sell firewood. Bina sells tea.


“They didn’t provide us the full details of what would happen if the dam came up. All of a sudden water levels rose, we weren’t aware that would happen,” says Milan Tamang, a contractor who used to run a quarry at 29th Mile.

He adds many houses including his own have developed cracks due to the reservoir.

“We didn’t know the project would have this kind of impact. They told us it is a small project. The river scares us now because it used to be down there… Now it has come up so high. It is 60 feet higher than where it used to be. I have worked on constructing the protective wall so I know. Water used to flow before and not stagnate like now.”

A lot of land was also taken by the NHPC, he informs, and adds that the compensation rates were not determined following any proper process.

“It was according to their whims and fancies. Some got Rs 35,000, some Rs 50,000. We don’t have proper documents of land ownership so we couldn’t do anything either,” says Milan.



A sidenote that begs mention here is the role of compensation money or rather the lack of a role it plays in actually compensating for the loss of the project-affected. In the case of the quarry workers, the loss of livelihood could never be compensated for by the amount they were given. Meanwhile, in Dzongu, those that had to part with their land got generous amounts as compensation, in a way due to the sustained protest against the projects there. However, villagers who are not accustomed to handling even small amounts of cash were suddenly overflowing with it and the money just bled away.

Dawa Lepcha, the torchbearer of the protest against hydel projects in North Sikkim, narrated the story of how a relative squandered more than half of his compensation money. This relative had received around Rs 27 lakh as compensation and on advice from an insurance agent put in Rs 18 lakh in insurance schemes for his three sons and a daughter. Unaware of the workings of insurance schemes, he failed to pay the premium installments and lost all the money.


DELAYS EMPTY STATE’S COFFERS

Fiscal stress on the state exchequer is another aspect of the hydel projects in Sikkim that only manifested later. According to the CAG Report 2016, the total cost overrun on the 1200 MW Teesta III project that was commissioned last year, was Rs 8,265 crore.

What this means is that an extra Rs 8,265 crore went into building the project in addition to the original estimated cost of Rs 5,700 crore. The report says that the cost overruns were mostly due to the time overrun which in turn were due to various reasons including the 2011 earthquake, flash floods, increase in the project costs due to unforeseeable geological surprises and so on.

Time overruns automatically result in cost overruns because cost of supplies is always on the rise in the market and of course the more time it takes to complete a project the more man-days it means, so labour costs also go up. We also know that construction projects are always flush with allegations of developers deliberately causing delays to up the costs. Coming back to Teesta III, the project ran into three cost overruns and time overrun of more than four years.

Athena India, a consortium of companies, formed a Special Purpose Vehicle [SPV] by the name of Teesta Urja Limited to develop the Teesta III project. The consortium, however, did not have the financial capability to fund the project. This came to light only when it refused to fund the second cost overrun forcing the state government through [SPICL] Sikkim Power Investment Corporation Limited to take over 51% equity shares [Rs 266.56 cr at the rate of Rs 8.53 per share] of Teesta Urja Limited in 2015.

The state was to contribute only 26% in TUL’s capital with the private consortium contributing the remaining 74%.


HUMAN COST

On 18 April 2014, sisters Chandra, Maya and Radhika Gurung were swept away by the Teesta near Bardang when water was suddenly released from the reservoir of the 510 MW Teesta V Hydropower project.

While Chandra and Maya were rescued by locals, Radhika could not be saved.

No warning sirens or alarms were sounded before the water was released from the reservoir, locals said.

This incident led to a PIL being filed in the High Court of Sikkim in the same year. In 2016, the court finally directed the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, the developers of Teesta V to set up proper warning system and protocol, install scientific and technical instruments necessary for ensuring the safety of the Dam and the life and property of people in the area and downstream and pay the family of the victim compensation of Rs 5 lakh.


Despite this tragic incident, project developers continue to ignore safety regulations as was made evident in May last year. On 26 May 2017, four youths were nearly washed away when the 96 MW Dikchu hydel project released water from its reservoir without any warning. The four managed to escape, but their belongings like bag, camera and mobile phones were carried away by the river forced into sudden spate by those managing the dam. They were at the riverside at 12th Mile that is downstream of the dam and the reservoir of the said power project located at the confluence of Ratey Chu and Bakcha Chu below Lingdok, 9th Mile, East Sikkim.

Following the incident, the High Court stepped in with a suo moto Public Interest Litigation and directed that proper warning systems be put in place. As the respective DCs made the rounds of project sites, they discovered that none of the hydel projects had adequately functional sirens in place!


ENDANGERING THE ‘VULNERABLE’

“The river’s volume has reduced because of the dam. It holds and releases water so the fish have vanished. Some old species have disappeared and the rest don’t grow any more. I have caught small fish like gadela, smaller than a dot pen, lohri which is also small, buduna, phageti, chaaley is long,” says Dal Bahadur Bhujel, a fisherman from Najok, Kalimpong.

It is no surprise that damming rivers will have an effect on the aquatic life it supports, but it has been treated as a sort of collateral damage that cannot be helped. However, the Teesta III project did spare a thought for the snow trout even though it came to naught in the end.

The Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] for the 1200 MW Teesta Stage III had said that the dam on the river would act as a barrier to the free movement of migratory fish species, especially the common snowtrout [Schizothorax richardsonii], and could lead to adverse impact on the survival and free movement of migratory fish species. The snowtrout is listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Hence, the EIA recommended the provision of a fish ladder, which was also incorporated in the Environment Management Plan [EMP] for the project. However, the fish ladder was not found to be a suitable option and instead, a trout farm was set up at Rabum, North Sikkim. Ironically, this farm mainly facilitated breeding of other species of trout and not the endangered snow trout.

The CAG 2016 report notes that fish ladder was one of the conditions for the Environmental Clearance and the harm to migratory fish species remained unaddressed. The project was commissioned on 17 Feb 2017 which means that the snow trout has already lost at least one breeding cycle (as of April 2018).

Angling enthusiast, Dr SK Dewan, says that the Farakka dam has caused major damage in terms of the migratory pattern of fish in the Teesta and other rivers in the hills.

“Sport fishes are fresh water fishes, they take time to mature. They are migratory and the ones found here originate in the Brahmaputra and Ganga delta. When they mature they swim up towards the Himalayan foothills stretching from Nepal, right up to near Manipur, to lay eggs during monsoons. They return after laying their eggs. The inflow of such fish into Sikkim went down due to the Farakka barrage because of which fish could not migrate up. They say there are fish ladders through which they are supposed to come. And now with so many dams coming, another 5-10 years we’ll have nothing,” he says.


CONCLUSION

Most of the incidents in this article are ones that made it to the headlines and there most certainly must be many which have not. Of these, the socio-cultural impacts of power projects are some that could not find space in this article. However, here is one that could perhaps illustrate what such impacts are about. Residents of 29th Mile on NH10 used to perform rituals for festivals like Chhat Puja and Maghe Sakranti on the Teesta’s banks, but because of the Teesta IV Low Dam the banks have been submerged and they now perform the rituals on the road or from the protective wall. It is such intangible costs that ‘development’ comes at that are difficult to reconcile with, the loss being so final.

Massive construction projects are bound to have adverse impacts and it would be a difficult, almost impossible, task to predict all of them; however, what is imperative and possible is to ensure that mitigation measures already in place are implemented in earnest. Mired by politics and big money, the debate on development versus environment continues - the divide between the groups lobbying for either only growing wider with time. In the case of Sikkim, the price for development has been high but how high exactly? Only time can tell.

[The writer is Features Editor, Summit Times]


SummitTimes presents the month-long Spotlight series focusing on hydel projects and climate change in Sikkim and West Bengal. The series has been made possible with support from Wageningen University, NWO and UK Department for International Development [DFID] under Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change research project ‘Enhancing mediascapes for sustainability and justice in the Eastern Himalaya’ coordinated by DLRP, a Darjeeling-based NGO. We will be featuring two articles every week.

More from the Spotlight series:

Sikkim's Hydel Story

Journey from Teestamukh till Tso Lhamo

People of Sikkim - The repository of climate change

A conversation with 3 activists

Two Protests

Climate change is getting real for Sikkim's farmers

Labouring for hydel